I wasn’t sure what, but I knew something was up when I stepped out my door today and saw my 60 year old neighbour covered head to toe in military camouflage and looking very much like a man on a mission. That kind of thing should be considered portentous in the Balkans.
In a region that was ravaged by wars throughout the 90s, military camo is often frowned upon in this era of uneasy peace. This I discovered when a now ex-friend came for a visit a year and a half ago. The most frequent words to spill from his mouth were “glug-glug” and he was in the habit of wearing camo pants. Understanding that he prefers the company dirty drunks, I brought him to Podgorica’s scummiest bar.
Despite his drinking prowess, Mr. Glug-glug could not manage to get so much as an ounce of the curious local hooch known as rakija down his boozehole without instantly throwing it, and the entire contents of his stomach, up. This made the Montenegrins laugh uproariously and slur words that maligned his mother and called into question his manhood. None of which bothered anyone in attendance.
However, as we all got into our cups it became apparent that there was something else causing consternation amongst the locals. Eventually, one of the locals pointed to Mr. Glug-glug’s camo pants and barked, “No!” It took us a few minutes to understand what they were on about but I finally mumbled, “Dude! Army pants! That ain’t hipster fashion in the Balkans.”
Mr. Glug-glug instantly understood, and did the only logical thing – he tore his pants off, threw them in the garbage, to loud applause, and drank away the rest of the night in his underwear.
But I live in a rural area, far from the wilds of the capital, where no one gives a flying fuck what is draped across your body as you go about your business in the prodigious autumn mud. Every couple months or so the old guys gear up in their army camo and drink rakija, for reasons that are not known to me. Usually they sit outside, glug-glugging rakija, and clean their guns. On such days I am happy to cower inside my not-quite-hovel and occupy myself with anything that does not require me going outside. But today I was out of fresh clean water (there is a boil-water advisory in effect thanx to the recent monsoons) and I had to get to the store, so I ventured forth to gather things necessary for bodily sustenance.
A 4 litre plastic jug of water in either hand, I made my way back home, down the cow shit covered lane. I looked to my left and saw all the old guys, all covered in army camo, standing outside my neighbour’s concrete back shed. ‘Something is definitely up,’ thought I, but I still had no idea what. Until I heard the stomach wrenching death squeal.
That is not the squeal of a pig being raped,’ I was pretty sure. ‘That must be,’ I was certain, ‘the squeal of a pig that is watching one of its friends, or family, being slaughtered.’
Oh, it was a hideous, sickening sound. ‘This is what death sounds like,’ I thought.
I’ve seen young humans die, four of them to be exact, less than two feet in front of me. But they were courteous enough to go quietly.
My neighbours noticed me, standing still, looking in their direction. I felt their cold eyes on me. I heard the knacker’s hammer come down on the head of the squealer. What a sound! The splat of the fat being squished. The muffled crunch of the cranium being crushed. The deafening silence that followed.
In my mind’s eye I could see the victims’ offspring watching their parents being murdered. Throughout their miserable lives they will always remember, if only in the dark recesses of their minds, their mother and father being murdered. Their heads crushed. Their throats slit. Their warm blood spilling across the cold concrete floor under their feet. Perhaps they will put that scene out of their minds and get on with their awful existence, until their day comes. And then they will remember. And then they will understand, for a few horrifying moments, their purpose on a planet ruled by sick sick sick two-legged creatures. And then they will squeal.
Having been a veggie for 27 years now, I was, mostly, unaffected by it all. I stood, watched, listened and shrugged. But still I felt the cold eyes of the cold-blooded murderers on me.
Just a week (or two?) earlier, we had all huddled in the garage of one of them, sampling this year’s batch of jabuka (apple) rakija. We watched the rain pour down and glug-glugged: I mumbling pleasant platitudes in my twelve word Serbian vocabulary and they doing the same in their twelve words of English. We were not so different then… but today we were.
This being a small “village” and everyone knowing everyone else’s business, they all know that I am a veggie. And that is a strange thing to be in this strange land. And I am so very much a stranger in this strange land.
All of this transpired in less than a minute, but a minute can be a long long time. As we watched each other and grappled to understand the strangeness of the stranger, I heard the questions racing through their minds.
“Who is he, this stranger, with the young girlfriend? The beautiful Roganovic girl, who went to America. The girl who lets her dog live in the house. The girl who lets her fluffy dog, Pookie, sleep in her bed. The girl who supports those awful gays. The girl who shamelessly fawns over her old, foreign boyfriend in public.”
“Who is this foreigner, this stranger, this outlander, who drinks rakija but does not eat meat and What Is He Doing Here?”